Francis Asbury on what Schism is – and the necessity of separation (hint: to preserve right doctrine)

English: Portrait drawing of Francis Asbury, A...
English: Portrait drawing of Francis Asbury, American Methodist leader (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is from Francis Asbury’s journal, 31 August 1796:

I had a meeting with the leader in close confe­rence, and found it necessary to explain some parts of our discipline to them, particularly that of the right of preachers expelling members, when tried before the society or a “select number,” and found guilty of a breach of the law of God, and our rules; and that if an appeal were made, it should be brought before the quar­terly meeting conference, composed of travelling and local preach­ers, leaders, and stewards, and finally be determined by a majority of votes. I found it also needful to observe there was such a thing as heresy in the church; and I know not what it is if it be not to deny the Lord that bought them; — and the eternity of the punishment of the damned, as is virtually done by the Universalists. Schism is not dividing hypocrites from hypocrites, formal professors from people of their own cast: it is not dividing nominal Episco­palians from each other; nominal Methodists from nominal Metho­dists; or nominal Quakers from nominal Quakers, &c. But schism is the dividing real Christians from each other, and breaking the unity of the Spirit. I met the trustees; and after going hither and thither, and being much spent with labour through the day; I gave them a discourse at the new house, (in the evening) on Acts xx. 32. My attempt was feeble but faithful.

We can only imagine why the offending elder was removed. Perhaps he was preaching the lack of Christology (and atonement?) and the universality of salvation. Indeed, these things seem to go together — which is why we find that when something of a universal reconciliation is often proposed throughout Church history, we find it always rooted 1.) on the atonement derived from a high Christology and 2.) bound in hope.

But, this is why some of us get ticked at Christians in the UMC for breaking the covenant while we can more easily, at this point, ignore the neo-pagans who “divest” from their vows. Schism is not the separation from heretics, sinners, and pagans, but the destruction of the bond between Christian and Christian.

Further, Asbury’s necessity of separation is…wait for it…based on doctrinal reasons AND the breaking of the rules (i.e., Book of Discipline). Believe or not, the breaking of vows is an abomination in Scripture. God does not take too kindly to it.

Note, Asbury did not suggest separation by those who did not break the rules (i.e., leaving, not paying apportionment, attempting to break the trust clause) but said that the offending party should be dealt with.

Let our feeble attempts be as faithful.

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7 Replies to “Francis Asbury on what Schism is – and the necessity of separation (hint: to preserve right doctrine)”

  1. Joel,

    Your readers may find some broader context helpful.

    At this point, Francis Asbury is visiting the congregations and societies in New York, specifically in Brooklyn. What he finds among them appalls him. He basically finds them nearly clueless about basics of Methodism and Christian life. He finds them to be much like what John Wesley noted could happen– a people called Methodist, having the form of religion but lacking the power, because they lacked the doctrine, Spirit and discipline with which Methodism had set out.

    The particular journal entry you quote comes from pages 311-312, here:

    So Asbury is talking to Methodist leaders in Brooklyn to remind them of some basic things about our discipline as Methodists. One of these is about the right (necessity!) for preachers to remove members who were thought to have violated the law of God and the General Rules and found upon trial guilty of having done so. (Aside: “our rules” typically referred to the General Rules in this time period, not the Book of Doctrine and Discipline, which was then less a law book and more a guidebook). Apparently they thought pastors couldn’t do this, or that there was no means to remove members, or maybe that there shouldn’t be.

    Somewhere in the course of that conversation at that point schism came up. We don’t know why, exactly. My hunch is Asbury felt it necessary to talk about this because some were accusing him (or Methodism) of creating schism when they removed members who clearly didn’t want to live as members (i.e., live out the General Rules and generally abide by scripture). That’s a plausible inference one can make, at least. So Asbury went on to explain the difference between the proper conduct of church discipline on church members (not elders here!) and actual acts of schism– which are connected to heresy. Apparently, they weren’t all that up on what heresy was, either, or that it even existed. (You can see throughout this whole section in the journal just how worn out Asbury is with how ill-informed and poorly formed these Brooklyn Methodists were!).

    In making that distinction, Asbury makes the ancient Christian connection between heresy and schism. That connection is that heretics are those who create schism in the living body of Christ because they teach falsely (or without authority) and lead others to break away from the existing body and its teachers/leaders to form another with the “heretic” as the teacher/leader.

    When Asbury talks about breaking God’s law and our rules, then he is NOT talking about schism at all, but about the right of the pastor to remove members found guilty at trial of having substantially violated scripture and/or General Rules in a way that requires their removal. Our Book of Discipline still contains a process for the trial of church members for violation of the doctrine or General Rules of the church to this day.

    And he considers schism to be a very grave action, indeed– not at all something to be confused with the proper conduct of church discipline.

    To paraphrase Frankenstein from SNL: Removing willfully wayward members, good; schism, bad.

    So I’m not sure what your point is here, Joel.

      1. Okay. I wasn’t getting your point.

        It seemed to me you were conflating schism and church discipline by the way you used the term separation– which can sometimes be read or understood as a synonym for schism.

        So I hope my comment above is indeed helpful in saying what you wanted to say.

  2. Heresy: Few parishioners and/or priests disagreeing with the religion’s power structure.

    Schism: Many parishioners and/or priests disagreeing with the religion’s power structure.

    Heresies create martyrs.

    Schisms create new religions or different sects within existing religions.

  3. “But schism is the dividing real Christians from each other”…
    Just wonder what he considered happened in the reformation? If he didn’t consider Catholics as real Christians, I also wonder when they ceased to be Christians? 400 AD? 600 AD? Or they never were?
    If he did consider Catholics Christians, then I wonder if he viewed the Reformation good or bad? If he viewed it as good, then he must view schism as good. Unless he currently viewed the status quo good, and didn’t want schism on his watch, but it was ok in the past.

    Just rambling questions. But this obsession with schism is really overblown. It is what it is. If schism is bad, then we should all be Catholics, and zip it. Or am I missing something in this logic flow? (I am sure I will be told I am missing something, but that just means people do not like change from their current status quo – what else is new?)

  4. I’ve come to the conclusion that the greatest weakness of the church is that it is so divided–the very counter to John 17:22. I would have expected more of those who came before me.

  5. Thank you, Joel. For more on Francis Asbury. I would like to invite you to the website for the book series, The Asbury Triptych Series. The trilogy based on the life of Francis Asbury opens with the book, Black Country. The opening novel in this three-book series details the amazing movement of John Wesley and George Whitefield in England and Ireland. The book richly brings to life the life-changing effects on a Great Britain steeped in addiction to gin and illiteracy. Black Country also details the Wesleyan movement’s effect on the future leader of Christianity in the American colonies, Francis Asbury. The website for the book series is Again, thank you, for the post.

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